By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
MELVINDALE – Difficulty hiring and retaining police officers, excessive overtime, safety concerns and plummeting morale were among the grievances aired by Melvindale police officers at the Aug. 17 City Council meeting.
Police Sgt. Matthew Furman, union steward with the Melvindale Police Supervisors Association, spoke earlier at the Aug. 9 Public Safety Commission meeting, at which time he was encouraged his to bring his concerns to the next council meeting.
He said the city officials have not heeded warnings from its police officers.
“Our police department is heading toward the edge of a cliff,” Furman said. “We have presented information and statistics and we have proposed solutions, yet the warning bells have not been heeded.”
He said the Melvindale Police Department has the lowest pay Downriver, the second lowest pay in Wayne County, no pension or meaningful retirement, lousy benefits and a rundown police station.
Furman said police officers have insufficient equipment, lack training, are chronically short staffed and that the mandatory overtime is taking its toll.
“Morale has been dead for years,” he said. “We are burned out, and physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. We cannot continue to operate in this manner.”
Furman said these issues make the Police Department uncompetitive with respect to hiring and retention. He said the department is unable to fill all of its 24 positions, and as of Aug. 17, the department had 17 police officers on staff.
He said 12 officers are assigned to the road patrol, spread over all of the shifts, two of whom will soon be leaving, with a possible third.
“If this happens, the department collapses,” Furman said. “If the road patrol drops to nine officers, the Police Department, even with forced overtime for all officers every day, will not be able to meet staffing requirements and will effectively cease to function.”
He said that since 2007, 42 police officers have been hired and subsequently quit the Police Department.
“The average police officer worked in Melvindale only 21 months before quitting,” Furman said. “Without competitive wages and a pension, there is no reason to stay.”
He said the forced overtime, including 12- and 16-hour shifts, leads to exhaustion, which in turn raises safety concerns.
Furman said there are typically only two officers on the day shift, to patrol the entire city, with three police officers on the afternoon and midnight shifts.
He said on the Aug. 7 day shift, he and his partner were dispatched to a call in which they encountered an irate man who was high on meth and cocaine, who punched his partner in the face four times and who headbutted him so hard it caused a concussion. He said the man also came at them with a butcher knife.
Because it was the weekend, Furman said there were no detectives to provide backup when both he and is partner ended up in the hospital.
“We called Dearborn and thankfully they had officers to send,” he said. “If they had been too busy, we would have been on our own.”
Furman said that during this time, a domestic assault occurred, and no Melvindale police officers were available to respond to the call.
He said criminals are taking advantage of the department’s staffing shortage, as well.
Furman said that their medical insurance has high co-pays and deductibles, and the company that should be paying the bills for the city delays payment for months at a time, and that some officers have paid bills that should have been paid through insurance to prevent damage to their credit rating and to avoid being hounded by bill collectors.
He said the police station is in poor shape, and police officers have contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to force the city to make improvements.
Furman said the concerns “fell on deaf ears” during the last contract negotiations.
Mayor Pro Tem Joe Jackson, who was running the meeting in Mayor Wheeler Marsee’s absence, said residents currently pay 24 mills for the Police Department.
“Our taxes are through the roof for the police, because of pension issues,” he said. “We are not going to put our citizens back in the same predicament we were in before.”
Jackson refuted Furman’s statement that Melvindale had the lowest paid police officers Downriver.
“I have been pro-police from the beginning,” Jackson said. “Anything you want, I am there for you.”
He mentioned the two new bullet-proof shields recently acquired, as well as current Police Department renovations.
“We are in the process of working on this stuff, but you come up here and act like we are not doing anything,” Jackson said. “Don’t get me wrong – you guys are doing an awesome job.”
Police Lt. Robert Kennaley thanked the city council for its past support.
“We are not attacking this body at all,” he said. “The intent is for everybody to see where we are at.”
Jackson said police departments everywhere are short-staffed, and Melvindale can’t afford to pay the higher salaries of some of the surrounding cities.
Kennaley said the 24 mills is funding the pensions of retirees, and none of it impacts the current police officers.
“We are at a critical point in our police department right now, to where, as we said in the military, things are close,” he said. “We are at a point now to where we are going to lose three more people, and if we lose any more past that, then we are going to have to reduce manpower, because we won’t have a source to supply the shifts with proper personnel.”
He said the Lincoln Park City Council gave its police officers a 15 percent raise last year when it found itself in a similar situation.
Kennaley said Detroit should have 5,000 police officers, and currently has only 1,500 officers.
Corporate Council Lawrence Coogan said the staffing problems are a sign of the times.
“I’ve been around this city for a long time, and have been here for a number of years, and at no point in the past 10 to 12 years has the Police Department ever come to this body and said, ‘Our offices or our building is deplorable,’” he said. “It’s never been brought up. If you don’t come to the body, and ask for things, you’re not going to get them.”
Jackson said he wants to help the department, but he won’t do it in a way that burdens the residents.
“We have the ninth highest taxes in Michigan,” Jackson said.
“It’s not the current police officers’ fault,” Kennaley responded.
“But it’s not our citizens’ either,” Jackson replied. “I don’t like being blindsided when we’ve been bending over backwards doing what we can for the Police Department.”
Kennaley said the department is at a critical juncture at which it needs to let the council know that it is facing serious problems.
“We are not going to have enough people to man this city,” he said.